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California Native Basic Garden Design Principles

Garden Guides | At Your Home Garden Design Service | In House Bed Design | Garden Tune-Up Service

Based on a talk by Annaloy Nickum entitled "How to Replace your Lawn with a Native Garden - Basic Garden Design Principles" given on 11/05/05 at Yerba Buena Nursery

Notes prepared and supplemented by Jennifer Leech on 11/12/05

Sections of this Document:

Self Analysis
Site Analysis
Design Considerations
Soil: Preparation and Maintenance
The Lawn Question
Lawn Removal Ideas
Suggested California Natives


The benefits of having a native garden in California are many - this will not be addressed in this document. This guide is a basic how-to on transforming your yard or existing garden into a native landscape. It walks through from beginning to end the issues you will need to consider as you move through the process; in particular, issues specific to California native plants. A certain amount of basic gardening knowledge is assumed. If you don’t know what mulch is or have never looked at the sun and water requirements of a plant before, you will need supplemental materials to make this guide useful. The experienced gardener, however, may well find answers here that are otherwise elusive.

Self Analysis

Begin by asking yourself: What kind of a gardener are you?

    • How often will the garden be tended?
    • By whom?
    • How important is "curb appeal?" Do you need the garden to resemble neighbors’ gardens?
    • How important is color? (A colorful garden usually has more perennials, which require more maintenance. Also remember that if you have flowers, you will later have dead flowers, which you may want to prune or deadhead.)

Decide on the level of maintenance you want to invest in the garden. Try to be as honest with yourself as you can, and avoid wishful thinking.

Even with best estimates, however, people often find that they are not in fact the kind of gardener that they thought they were. This can go both ways - those who think they will want to invest a lot into their garden may find that they don’t spend as much time as they expected on maintenance. Also, gardeners who thought they would want a maintenance-free yard may find that they enjoy spending time in the space, and wouldn’t mind having more maintenance tasks to tend. You may learn something about yourself that you didn’t know before ;)

Don’t underestimate the importance of who does the work in the garden, both in terms of installation and maintenance. "Mow and Blow" type services are generally not prepared to deal with native plants, which are often best left unpruned or pruned very gently or infrequently. Most native gardens will look best pruned as few as 4 times a year! Also, eradicating all leaves removes valuable natural mulch which is important to maintain/create healthy soil. If you decide to pay someone to maintain your garden, consider hiring someone who specializes in maintaining natives, and redirect your annual expenditure toward four larger payments instead of 52 or 26 smaller ones.

All of this will dictate the choices you can make when choosing plants for your garden. If you are a low-maintenance gardener, consider how this will restrict your plant choices; conversely, if you want to spend a lot of time in the garden, consider how this will expand them.

Site Analysis

Make a scaled (based on measurements) or rough sketch of the yard. This will be the basis for your bubble-diagram. Note locations of:

    • Sprinklers
    • shady/sunny areas
    • moist areas (don’t forget neighbors’ watering patterns)

Look at existing plants. Which will you keep? Remember that the moisture level required to maintain a plant you keep will dictate which natives can be planted nearby.

    • Note with bubbles on your drawing the plants you will keep. These plants will create "hydrozones," or areas of specific moisture levels that you will need to consider when selecting natives that will be included in your design. Note hydrozones where they occur.

What is your soil type? When houses are built, rich topsoil is often removed to make for a more solid foundation. You may need to replace or regenerate soil that has been removed. If there are piles of soil in the yard, these can be molded into mounds which add interest and will increase drainage for any plants planted there. For these reasons, you may wish to create mounds even if you don’t already have excess soil that needs to be used.

    • Take note of whether you will need to add/amend soil.
    • Will you change the topography of your yard (create mounds)? Indicate mounds/gradients with contour lines in your drawing.

Screening. Is there an unsightly old car rusting across the street from your front bay window? Is there a view that you want to keep? Know where you will want sreening in the design. Instead of using a hedge for screening, consider an alternative such as using layered natural clusters of shrubs/trees. This is often a far more attractive alternative, and integrates well with a native design.

    • Take note of any specific height requirements for parts of your design.

Hardscape. Paths that meander and narrow/widen can make a garden feel more natural and pleasant. If you create mounds, consider a path that weaves between the mounds, as if in a little valley.

    • Sketch locations of paths in the garden

Design Considerations

Mass or repeat plants. Planting in masses or repeated patterns rather than single specimens gives each plant you use more impact in the design.

Place elements to rest or lead the eye. Besides paths, dry creek beds, rocks, mounds and green expanses of groundcover make a design more visually appealing.

Spacing. Everyone makes this mistake, even experienced designers! Make sure that you allow enough space for each plant to reach its mature size. It is far easier to add plants later to fill in gaps than to rip plants out or prune heavily later because plants were placed too closely in the design. And cheaper too! Make sure to allow ample room for plants to grow in your design.

Texture and Foliage Contrast. Mix swaths of green or grey plants among those of particular interest or contrasting foliage to both balance the garden, and to provide the eye places to rest throughout.


In general, drip irrigation is best. Even with the most well-intentioned gardener, hand-watering can be inconsistent. Most natives don’t respond to over-head spray well, either. Drip irrigation tends to work best.

How much how often? There is no magic formula that will tell you how much to water. In general, as plants are getting established (the first 1-2 years), use a moisture meter to determine when the soil is getting dry, and use this data to schedule your watering regimen. For most native plants, let soil get almost completely dry before watering. Once plants are established, you may not need to water at all if you have chosen plants well-adapted to your site’s natural conditions.

Note: see How To Transplant Your Natives Successfully in the Garden Guides section of the YBN website for more information on watering. Note that this guide is meant to be printed and folded, so it actually begins on page 2!

Soil: Preparation and Maintenance

Amendment. If amending the soil with organic matter such as compost, mix amendment directly into soil in planting holes. Dig generous holes twice as wide as the plant, and use the excess soil to make a nice gradient of soil texture from the pot’s highly organic planting mix, to your underlying soil. Spreading compost over all of soil surface or rototilling will encourage weeds to take advantage of the fertile open space - don’t feed your weeds! (…unless you want to. ;)

Weeding. Hand-weeding is best, complimented with mulching (more is better!), and planting plants that will be able to crowd out and compete with your weeds. Other methods of weed control include Solarization (heating soil to high temperatures for long enough to kill weeds and their seeds by covering with black plastic for several weeks or months in spring/summer), and at a very last resort, an organic pre-emergent such as Supressa, which is a less toxic chemical alternative for weed control than other commercial products such as Roundup.

The Lawn Question

To Lawn or Not To Lawn? To be blunt, the evergreen, perfectly trimmed, watered lawn is a poor match for a dry native garden, being neither native, nor dry (some would say it's a poor match for any native garden). If you choose to include a traditional lawn in your design, keep in mind that any native that likes it very dry (Manzanita for instance) would prefer to not be within 10 feet of the lawn; also, any nearby area should be considered a relatively moist hydrozone. Arguments against having a traditional lawn include: high water usage; could be replaced by plants more friendly to local insects and other wildlife; creation of wet hydrozone in surrounding areas prevents use of other plants native to that specific locality; etc.

For aesthetic or other reasons, however, you may wish to approximate a native, drought tolerant version of this idea of an open, continuous grassy space. Of course, the key word here is "approximate." If this is of interest to you, following are some ideas on how to accomplish this.

In their natural state, native grasses have the following characteristics: they are usually bunchgrasses (grow in clumps rather than a spreading carpet); they go through an annual cycle which includes a dry, somewhat dormant stage, as well as a wet, green/growing stage; and they are better left growing some height off the ground, rather than trimmed to within just a few inches of the soil surface.

We have heard talk about how you can have a lush, green, lawn-like carpet of native grasses in front of your house, all year long; but when we ask under what conditions this has been done, the secret ingredient is that generally you have to add lots of compost to the soil, and water heavily -- much like a regular lawn. With this treatment, native grasses such as Festuca rubra may look great the first year, but as they mature, they will begin to fade as they are prevented from entering into their natural cycle of wetness followed by drought.

A good alternative to this lawn-replicating notion is a mass of plants that stay green all year with less water naturally; or, for the owner to be okay with the "lawn" going through annual cycles of partial dormancy, when the grass will be partially brown (but still alive and healthy!). Options for a continuously green space include several grass and groundcover options such as: groundcover manzanita (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi and others species); or groundcover Wild Lilac (Ceanothus sp.). For a more silvery option, try masses of Blue Fescue (Festuca ‘Siskiyou Blue’), or a close grass relative (see below for a more comprehensive list of options). For the lawn that goes partially dormant, try Carex pansa, Festuca rubra, Festuca idahoensis, or Deschampsia caespitosa. These native grasses will make a wild-looking, somewhat bumpy but soft surface that looks great with wildflowers added to the mix. And generally it's better not to mow -- these grasses will look best with a simple haircut once or twice a year.

Lawn Removal Ideas

For those who decide to remove their lawn, it should be said that there is no well-known sure-fire method for doing this. Discussion and experimentation on this topic are ongoing, and new ideas or stories of success or failure are always of interest. The techniques are largely the same as those for weed removal, but in the case of such a large expanse of vigorous "weeds", there are some additional issues to consider. Here are some techniques reputed to work with varying degrees of success, and some tips on what to be aware of when attempting them:

    • Shade it out. This technique involves placing cardboard, newspapers, or other mulch-like materials on the lawn to deprive it of light. After some length of time, perhaps several months, the grass should largely be dead. The difficulties: grass is one of those survivor plants that can grow through any tiny crack in cement, or work its way along a crack (in the dark!) some distance looking for light before exhausting its resources and giving up. This means that any tiny crack of light that gets through your cover will compromise your efforts. (Starting to have some sympathy for these hardworking little grasses?)
      - A specific version of this we've heard good feedback on: several layers of newspaper all over lawn, topped by 6" of cow or steer manure (not horse -- too many weed seeds). After about 2 months, the manure will have aged into a plantable compost, and the newspaper will have decomposed somewhat, while the lawn should be effectively shaded into extinction. At this point, you can just plant straight into/through the top layer of manure/compost!
    • Solarization. As described in the weed-removal discussion above, this technique involves heating the ground to a point that both the grasses and their seeds cannot survive. This can be done by laying black plastic over the ground, and somehow anchoring it down without interfering with the sun’s ability to heat the plastic, and for that heat to be radiated and contained underneath. Difficulties: it is difficult to cover a large area of ground with such a system, and achieve an adequate seal to keep in heat. Also, one must be able to adequately anchor the plastic without detracting too much from its heat-radiating properties; such a light-weight material is likely to blow away. Also, if you live in a windy or shady area, it will be difficult to keep the plastic at high enough temperatures to create a solarizing effect.
    • Organic herbicides. Killing plants with chemicals works, but has many, many undesirable side-effects. Chemicals once released into the environment are free to travel wherever the current takes them (quite literally), which could be into treasured natural waterways, the pool your children play in, or your drinking water. Toxic chemicals such as herbicides should be considered as only a very last resort, and if used, should be used with great care. Also, organic herbicides such as Supressa are less toxic to the environment than others on the market; research any herbicide before deciding to use it. The issue particular to using herbicides on a lawn: a lawn usually occupies a fair amount of space - the larger the space, the more herbicide will be required to eradicate the existing plants. If using toxic chemicals in your yard was a bad idea, using more of them isn’t better. Please think carefully before using an herbicide for this purpose.
    • Dig it out. This is comparable to hand-weeding, except on a much larger scale. When hand-pulling weeds, one tries to get as much of the root system as possible out of the ground, and shake as much soil as possible off of the roots. Digging out a lawn is a far less exacting process, and these two aims are far less achievable - so you lose a great deal of soil, and end up leaving many roots in the ground (meaning that the plants may come back). However, on the positive side, it is much faster than the waiting involved with mulching or solarizing, and doesn’t pollute the environment like herbicides. "Sod removal" machines exist, and some contractors will perform this task as part of the services they offer - research availability of such machines online if interested. Alternatively, a shovel and some hard work will also achieve the same end. Try mulching after digging to get even better results.

If you know of a method for lawn removal that is effective that we didn’t mention, let us know! We are always interested in the valuable feedback our customers provide from their personal experience.

Suggested California Natives to Use in Your Garden

Evergreen groundcovers for dry conditions (Lawn replacers)

Sanddune Sedge (Carex pansa)
Blue Fescue (Festuca ‘Siskiyou Blue’)
Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) **
Idahoe Fescue (Festuca idahoensis) **
Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia caespitosa) **

** Somewhat seasonally dormant, i.e. turns partly or mostly brown

Other Groundcover Options
Groundcover manzanita aka Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi and other species)
Groundcover Wild Lilac (Ceanothus)
Creeping Sage (Salvia hybrids i.e. ‘Amethyst Bluff’ or ‘Bee’s Bliss’)
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria californica)
Beach Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis)

Create a Meadow Effect
(combination of plants including bunchgrasses, wildflowers, and a few small shrubs and/or large rocks as focal points)

Shade - Wet to Moderate Water
Giant Chain Fern (Woodwardia fimbriata)
Alum Root (Heuchera)
Fringecups (Tellima grandiflora)
Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)
Western Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)
Sugar Scoop (Tiarella trifoliata)
California Mock Orange (Philadelphus)
Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum)
Mainden Hair Fern (Adiantum)

Shade - Dry, Good Under Oak Trees
Barberry (Mahonia aka Berberis)
Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
Monkeyflower (Mimulus)
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica)
Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana)
Blue Fescue (Festuca ‘Siskiyou Blue’)

Sun - Dry
California Fuchsia (Epilobium aka Zauschneria)
Wild Lilac (Ceanothus)
Manzanita (Arctostaphylos)
Sage (Salvia)
Penstemon (Penstemon)
Blue Fescue (Festuca ‘Siskiyou Blue’)
Monkeyflower (Mimulus)
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica)

Sun - Wet to Moderate
Reeds (Juncus)
Sedges (Carex)
Marsh Lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus)
Cardinal Monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis)
Seep Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus)

Part Shade Versatility
Alum Root (Heuchera)
Fringecups (Tellima grandiflora)
Monkeyflower (Mimulus)
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica)
Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana)
Blue Fescue (Festuca ‘Siskiyou Blue’)
Seaside Daisy (Erigeron)

Garden Guides | At Your Home Garden Design Service | In House Bed Design | Garden Tune-Up Service

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